Jimmy Robert, Imitation of Lives (2017), rehearsal view.  Courtesy of the artist.  photo credit: Michael Biondo Butler at the Glass House kitchen, image from Jimmie Daniels (far right), seated with filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson and socialite and actress Blanche Dunn in Harlem, early '40s.
Jimmy Robert, Imitation of Lives (2017), rehearsal view. Courtesy of the artist.
photo credit: Michael Biondo
Butler at the Glass House kitchen, image from "House at New Canaan, Connecticut," Architectural Review, 1950 1950, Volume 108, number 645.
Jimmie Daniels (far right), seated with filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson and socialite and actress Blanche Dunn in Harlem, early '40s.
October 25th, 2017

Jimmy Robert in conversation with Mario Gooden

In Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity, published in 2016 by Columbia University Press, American architect and scholar Mario Gooden explores the construction and representation of racial identities in connection with the design of buildings. From little-known African-American architect Amaza Lee Meredith and "Azures South,” her modernist house-cum-manifesto built in 1938 in Virginia, to recent museums in the United States focused on the African-American experience, Gooden examines the spatial conditions of architecture in relation to the constant reshaping of the African Diaspora.

Gooden recently met with French artist Jimmy Robert to discuss Robert’s live performance Imitation of Lives, a co-commission between Performa and The Glass House for Performa 17. In this new work, presented on November 3-5, 2017, Robert along with dancers NIC Kay and Quenton Stuckey, occupy Philip Johnson’s modernist icon, and play with its reflective qualities to examine the complex aesthetics and politics at work in contemporary representations of the black body.  

Gooden and Robert will expand their discussion on Robert’s work and questions of representation and race in modern architecture with a public conversation held at the Performa Hub (427 Broadway, at Howard Street) on Tuesday, November 6, at 3pm.

 

Mario Gooden:  You’ve been quoted as saying, "Representation is essentially very volatile…pin it down, and it instantly escapes." (1) Can you explain how this informs your multi-disciplinary practice?

Jimmy Robert:  I'm interested in the relationship we have with images, mainly photography. I come from the traditional concern that there is a problem with representation. That it fails, or we fail to represent whatever we are trying to represent. What does it mean to represent and who is represented?

How do you think about gender or race regarding the volatility of representation? What are the risks in terms of identity?

I guess there is a desire to be represented—or to be seen—as the subject. That’s what I was looking for as a young person in France in the ‘90s, where I couldn't see myself represented in the media or in art. Moving to the UK, there was something very different happening, I had a sense of that representation. There were black artists; there was advertising with black people in it. It’s about defining things—as soon as you enter a definition, what if you don’t fit that definition? The risk is never finding a fixed representation—but that could also be a good thing. It could mean that you aren’t limited by a particular language of representation.

In your work, photographs, paper or other objects seem to “perform” even when the body isn’t present. How do you think about those subject-object relationships?

Often the object could be a stand-in for another character or allude to another body. I'm trying to give a body to an image; works under a frame can’t do that. And of course, giving it this form, this shape, is not necessarily making it a body, but it’s physical and is another relationship created with an image. You have to bend your body, kneel, or turn around to look at it. It establishes choreography to how you walk around a space and apprehend an installation. I try to not make people lazy in their relationships with images.

I guess that goes back to the idea of representation because you are in an active relationship to the image. Maybe, you start thinking about how it's constructed and, you start questioning yourself. That's my hope.

How have you brought these ideas to the piece you're working on for the Glass House, where it's about working with the Glass House as an object itself?

It's the first time I've worked with a site that has this level of transparency. I'm thinking of the exhibition last year at the Walker Art Center, Question the Wall Itself. Being in a space like the Glass House is a way of questioning the wall—whether it's the institution or our bodies within the institution. That's one of the reasons I was excited to work there.

And the question is then, as you rightly put it, that the house becomes the object, and how do our bodies situate themselves in it? I don't know if Charles Aubin, the co-curator of the project, told you a little bit about the background, but there was a book that I got as a present a few years back. I read it before knowing that I would be doing anything at the Glass House. I was intrigued by it. When Charles mentioned the Glass House as a venue, I instantly remembered the book, Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel, by Jeff Wall. I re-read it and got really excited…

It's a kind of layering already; Wall is an artist writing about another artist, himself writing about architecture and urbanism. There’s a larger argument, but there was already an interesting legacy of thoughts and activity to engage with, something that happens in many of my works, whether it's learning Yvonne Rainer's Trio A (1966) or appropriating Cut Piece (1965) from Yoko Ono. Revisiting these works with this notion of self-representation: how is it for a black body to be in this space? How is this perceived?

The Glass House is an object for me. It's a space that proposes transparency; it offers a lot of potential to explore. I intend to do the performance both in the daytime and at dusk, not only to see how the house is perceived differently but also how our bodies are perceived in these two different lights. The question of reflection plays a role. To me, it's underlining and pushing these ideas of space, visibility, the wall or absence of the wall, and the position of these bodies in relation to this visibility.

Jeff Wall wrote about the transparency of the Glass House and how it changes from day to night, the way that the lighting transforms the interior surfaces of the glass into mirrors sometimes, and an anxiety related to this condition.(2)  I’m struck by the way you’re instrumentalizing the house to perform a kind of cultural reflectivity through the archetypes you use in the performance: the hoodie-wearing figure, the security guard, and the silk-robed figures. How did these characters come to be?

Some came through reading Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel and the contrast between Dan Graham’s Alteration to a Suburban House (1978) and the more bourgeois environment of the Glass House; I thought, "Already. There." The anxiety of pitting the bourgeois world against the urban one was present in the book, and that conjured up lots of images. Somehow it was already very cinematic. It's not just the big pans of vision that the Glass House offers that makes it cinematic, but also its framing. And framing, to me, comes back to this idea of representation that we were talking about earlier. How do you make an image? You first need to make a frame.

The framing leads me to create something more than cinematic images, but characters and almost scenes. Each of the three parts of the performance are like these characters. Some are coming from cinematic pieces or figures that I've been aware of through artists like David Hammons, the hooded figure in particular. I’m thinking of Hammons’ cut-off hoodie, In The Hood (1993). That is such a powerful piece of embodiment and yet, quite violent and mysterious, really loaded with a lot of information, and yet very, very simple.

It was very much about trying to work with these notions of where we locate black bodies within this space, within this house. The third part of the piece functions in these tentative narratives. It’s stronger in the US than Europe, but there is a strong stereotype attached to the figure of the security guard as being black and male. Yet the frightening figure is the hooded figure who is somehow interchangeable. Very early in the process, I wanted to contrast these two figures and have them in conversation in the same space.

The third, robed figures come in total opposition to these other two—there’s something more decadent, something mannerist that isn’t in the first two—and therefore they are much more expressive and delicate. So, now the question is how to make them relate—or not. The work is functioning with the figures as cinematic images or small scenes of a film that one has to put together for oneself.

As the three scenes move through the space of the Glass House, they seem to communicate a cultural anxiety about race and black bodies in that space. How do you want the audience to interact with the performance?

I think what needs to be worked out at this stage of rehearsal is the gaze: our gaze and the audience's gaze. How is the audience looking at us and how are we looking at them? Something that I got from Yvonne Rainer's Trio A is how she became an object because she wasn’t looking at the audience. Like in her No Manifesto (1965), she expressed this resistance to seduction and resistance to sentimentalizing the subject-object formula.

It’s going to be hard to know exactly how this functions, but for sure, there will be proximity to the audience. We will have to move people, or ask them to move, or make them understand that they need to move. The proximity will heighten our sense of presence and, I'm hoping, create some form of intimacy with the audience as we all move and negotiating this space. It isn’t a stage. Or, if it is a stage, we are all on it at the same time.

That brings us back to thinking a little bit more about the relationship between the performance and the Glass House. For many avant-garde architects working in the early twentieth century, and then again in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the architectural object wasn’t the goal of their work but was just another form of representation, like a drawing or text. I'm wondering about the Glass House as a form of representation. Are these ways in which you think of making the Glass House volatile, or perhaps revealing its volatility and its fragility?

I don't know. I think, maybe, as an idea, it’s fragile because it's meant to be a glass house. Once you're experiencing it and you're walking through it, it's very, very present. It's very much a delimited space. There’s reading about it, and then there’s being in it. Despite the utter visibility, there’s a sense of paradoxical intimacy about it.

Philip Johnson and his partner David Whitney moved into the space and at some point, there were curtains over some of the windows…I don't know how often they used them, but generally, it’s a domestic space, and therefore, private, even if it was always visible. Maybe that's what I’m interested in, this intimacy and this extreme visibility, making something that will be public, but still claiming a certain intimacy, which might be something fragile or difficult to capture. It goes back to the notion of "image making" that I was talking about—volatility and representation. There’s a paradox at the heart of the house.

I want to go back to the question of black bodies in relationship to the house because I think that has the potential to reveal a volatility or fragility. One tends to think of modern architecture through the hierarchical structures of Western European thought, history, and humanism. And for some architectural historians and theorists, the question of race and the Glass House has never been raised. A few months ago, Cole Akers at The Glass House made me aware of Philip Johnson’s 1950 essay, where Johnson reviewed the house and explained where his ideas for the house derived from. The only photograph in this essay to include the body, except for a photo of Johnson sitting at his desk, was a photo of a black butler standing at the cooking unit in the kitchen. Johnson said that he wanted to keep the kitchen very abstract, to make it just a simple bar. It seems that this figure of the black butler standing at the cooking unit signified that this was the service space of the house. And this is important because it signifies the larger ways race has been at the service of modern architecture. I wonder how (or whether) you were thinking about this as you choreographed movement around the bar?

I actually hadn’t seen the picture. The movement around the bar was, to me, firstly about doing something with what we can touch in the house and what’s at a level where the body can interact with it. The sense that people would gravitate around this space socially came very naturally. It has this explicit domesticity about it that maybe isn’t so obvious. The choreography around the bar developed through a very practical sense of heights and how we position our bodies to specific heights—by holding the bar and being able to touch it.

We’ve spoken about the cabaret singer Jimmie Daniels, described as being Philip Johnson's first serious lover, who he met in Harlem through composer Virgil Thompson. Johnson was quoted as saying Daniels was a “most charming man.” He said, "I still look back with great pleasure. I was the envy of all downtown. It was so chic in those days. It was what one did if one was really up to date. Those were the days when you just automatically went to Harlem."(3)

I haven't read that quote. I read some of the others, but, yes, it says a lot about the exoticization of the black body. I don't know much about the Harlem Renaissance except through Isaac Julien’s film Looking for Langston (1989), something I saw back in the ‘90s when I was studying in London. It was interesting to discover the Harlem Renaissance through the lens of this artist's work and to see the power of this latent desire that I found again through some of your writing, or Anne Anlin Cheng’s writing about Josephine Baker and the modern surface.(4)

That's why I brought the singing of Josephine Baker lyrics into the work; it raises questions of exoticization of the body—how is that played out on a stage? Or, looking at the house as a stage, how is that performed?
Can you speak a little bit more about the singing and the text that's performed? There's the poem “Song” by Lorenzo Thomas. And then there’s the poem “Touring” by Audre Lorde, that I think NIC reads.
“Touring” is between two performers, between NIC and Quenton. I cut it almost like a dialogue, so it’s no longer one text by one person. Instead they're saying it to each other. They are recreating an intimate relationship on the bed while they touch hands. It's not resolved yet. The other two are performed by NIC. One is said over a walkie-talkie so you can decipher some of it, but aren’t always hearing it.

We will have the texts in the booklets for the audience to read in their own time. Some of them I found in an anthology of poems by African American writers called Every Goodbye Ain't Gone.(5) Then for Audre Lorde…I saw this fantastic documentary about her life in Berlin.(6)  It was the end of her life after she was sick with cancer. She did this great project where she tried to get German women of color together, to be aware of each other, and create community. These women would be very shy talking about their shared experience in Europe, and she managed to bring them together.

I read a lot of poetry, trying to find texts that spoke to me linguistically or in terms of the content, trying to see how someone would introduce interesting movements in connection with the spoken word. It's an opportunity I haven’t had in Europe, working with people who are native speakers and can use the language and play with it in a way that I cannot. I thought, let's try to appropriate these texts, through their musicality, and by the fact that they are meant for performance. Some people forget that poetry has an element of performance to it. It made sense to me to explore the house with music, with language, and the musicality of language, how you go from a music piece to a spoken piece, then back to the movement.

As you were just mentioning, the performance has many points of reference. I believe the title of the performance is Imitation of Lives. Is that correct?

Yes.

That calls to mind the 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers called Imitation of Life. Was this what you had in mind when you entitled your performance?

Yes, but I know the Douglas Sirk and Lana Turner version better, which is a film that touched me. I was reading a book about cinema and the role of mirrors, at some point, there is a mention of Imitation of Life and I was like, "Oh, wow!"(7) It struck me because I was in that mode of title seeking, and that one made sense on many levels. But, obviously, I needed to change something so that it's not only about the film, but it's also about the film.

The book claims that the mirror has many different functions in cinema, and one is about identity and recognizing oneself.  In Imitation of Life, there’s a moment where Lana Turner is calling her kid to let her know how her career as an actress is going, and her daughter asks if she's nervous. As she's talking into the phone, she's looking into a mirror. It’s this odd moment about her life and her life as an actress, this doubling of the artificiality of her and what she wants to be. And then, the writer turns to this melodramatic moment with Sarah Jane, the character who’s passing as white in the film, refusing to see her mother because she doesn’t want to be identified as black. The mother visits her in the place where she works, this dancing bar, and again, the mirror appears. When Sarah Jane cries in opposition to her mother, she raises her head to look into the mirror and sees her mother’s face. It's a moment of realization of the self and denial, but also of Hollywood and all of its fronts. It's something profound and powerful. It reminds me, to an extent, of the relation between Europe and the US regarding black representation, and how that is discussed and articulated in the US much more so than in Europe. As black Europeans, we're always looking to the US for how advanced this conversation is.

And of course, you cannot say "lives" without thinking of Black Lives Matter. That’s something that Europe's aware of, but not engaged with in the same way. You can’t avoid it, you know? It's ongoing, and it's interesting to see that one word can bring up so many layers. And what are these questions provoking in terms of images? So, we think about films, we think about Black Lives Matter, you also think of liveness.

So, somehow putting this together in my head and with the idea of liveness, something I talk about during one of the text pieces in the work. I’m playing with this notion that it’s not an imitation of life, it's imitation of lives, and trying to question this liveness…what it is? What are these bodies, these living bodies, in this space? The piece only happens with their presence in this space and not at any other moment. Maybe it’s as un-lifelike as cinema and theater in the end because the action is very, very rehearsed. As my late friend Ian White once wrote, “The hand will always fall back at the same place somehow.”

 

(1) Stefania Palumbo, “System of Touch,” Interview with Jimmy Robert, Mousse Magazine, no. 19

(2) Curator’s note from Cole Akers: In fact, Philip Johnson worked with preeminent lighting designer Richard Kelly in 1949 to devise a lighting scheme for the Glass House that maintains its fundamental transparency at night. Design historian Margaret Maile Petty has written that Kelly's scheme emphasizes "the transparency of the glass walls while also offering controlled views of the landscape from the interior and exterior of the pavilion. Raising the lighting conditions surrounding the house and using only indirect lighting inside [allows] the glass walls to appear as invisible membranes [at night.]" (Margaret Maile Petty, "'Edge of Danger': Electric Light and the Negotiation of Public and Private Domestic Space in Philip Johnson's Glass and Guest Houses," Interiors Vol. 1, Issue 3, (2010), 206.)

(3) Charles Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America (New York: Grove Press, 1997), 41.

(4) Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Mario Gooden, Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity  (New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2016).

(5)  Every Goodbye Ain't Gone, ed. Aldon Lynn Nielzon and Lauri Ramey (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006)

(6) Audre Lorde, The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 directed by Dagmar Schultz (2006).

(7) Dominique Païni, L'attrait des Miroirs (Crisnée: Éditions Yellow Now, 2017).

 

Jimmy Robert (b. 1975, Guadeloupe, France), trained in visual arts at Goldsmiths in London, and currently lives and works in Bucharest. Often reworking iconic performances of the '60s and '70s, Robert rearticulates them by disrupting their racial and gendered readings. Robert has exhibited at WIELS in Brussels, Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and Dakar Biennial. Recent solo exhibitions include Museum M in Leuven (2015), The Power Plant in Toronto (2013), and MCA Chicago (2012). In 2014, for MoMA’s James Lee Byars retrospective, Robert performed The Mile-Long Paper Walk (1965), initially danced by Lucinda Childs.  

Mario Gooden is the author of Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity. He is principal of Huff + Gooden Architects and a Professor of Practice at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) of Columbia University where is also the co-Director of the Global Africa Lab (GAL). He is a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and a MacDowell Colony Fellow.

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